SAN DIEGO -- Rockies closer LaTroy Hawkins notes that the early days of a season can be difficult for relievers. They've had a chance to work in Spring Training, but the innings aren't enough, or intense enough, to truly prepare.
"Guys are swinging at the first pitch or guys are out there working on things, and you're only throwing one inning at a time," Hawkins said. "We're still getting ourselves together."
Not that Rockies relievers haven't been getting the chance to work. From the start of the current road trip through Tuesday, the bullpen worked 18 2/3 innings with 16 strikeouts, against 10 hits and 10 walks, with the walks being largely due to lefty setup man Rex Brothers' slump. From April 9 through Tuesday, the 0.79 ERA for the Rockies' 'pen was the second-lowest in the Majors to the 0.73 mark for the Giants.
"There's a fine line," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "I talk about protecting our pitching all the time, protecting our starting pitching, but there's a balance there where you're really protecting the starters and the bullpen takes on the workload. I'm aware of that."
The balance of a good bullpen can be upset easily. Last year, the Rockies were near the top of the National League West in June, until then-closer Rafael Betancourt began dealing with a series of injuries that would end his season early. He ended up undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Picking up veterans Hawkins and lefty Boone Logan, who has five strikeouts against five hits and a walk in three innings over five appearances, has helped stabilize the bullpen. Brothers, who has battled walks and doesn't appear to be pitching with the necessary abandon and confidence, Chad Bettis and Tommy Kahnle are getting important innings as young relievers. Veteran Matt Belisle has at times shown wear from heavy usage the past four seasons, but his last two appearances have been solid.
What isn't clear is whether this bullpen can withstand the upheaval that comes with injury, like the one to Betancourt last year. But there are possible experienced reinforcements in veteran Nick Masset, who is coming off two years of injury and is at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and even Betancourt, who plans to re-sign with the Rockies and could be available if he heals properly.
But Weiss would rather turn to other relievers in non-emergency situations.
"Last year we lost 'Raffy' for big, big chunks of time," Weiss said. "When that happens, there's not a whole lot you can do. You deal with it, but it's going to affect you. It trickles down. We ran into that last year. Hopefully, we don't lose guys for big chunks of time out there, because if that's the case, it affects your bullpen and where guys are slotted out there. I pay a lot of attention to how they're feeling every day. I try to stay on top of it, stay out in front of it."
The Rockies have to hope the heavy early workload sharpens the bullpen rather than deplete it.
"It works both ways -- you get a lot of work done, which is good," Hawkins said. "But you don't want to wear down too early and get to a point where the bullpen is tired."